When United Airlines Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago crashed at Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989, fire fighters and rescue workers had been waiting for more than half an hour for the plane to arrive. The airport was swarmed with emergency vehicles. The jumbo jet had been crippled in flight when an engine exploded, disabling the hydraulic systems. With no ability to steer the plane, the pilots were desperately trying to keep the fully-loaded DC-10 from rolling over and diving into the ground. They used the throttles on the two remaining engines, one on each wing, to crudely direct the ship.
When the plane appeared over the bluffs northwest of the airport and slammed onto the runway at four o'clock on that Wednesday afternoon, it broke apart and exploded in a ball of fire. Many people on the field didn't respond at first. They assumed that no one could survive such a crash. They watched the wreckage burn and tumble across nearly a mile of Iowa corn and soybeans that were densely planted around the runways. Rows of seats with people strapped into them came out of the plane and vaulted down the runway at more than 200 miles an hour. Some were flung high over the fiery scene. Many banks of seats went skidding along the concrete like sleds on their steel runners.
"There were bodies everywhere," said Jim Walker, an Iowa Air National Guard pilot who happened to be on the field. The Sioux City Airport is a National Guard base, and Walker, along with fellow pilots, drove onto the runway in a pickup truck to see if they could help in the wake of the crash. "And we just sat there looking at all these dead people." Most of them were lying in the grassy easement between the concrete and the crops. "And the most surreal thing I've ever seen in my life happened next," Walker continued. "It actually looked like something from Night of the Living Dead, because many of these dead bodies, all of a sudden, started sitting up and standing up and I remember saying, 'Is everyone else seeing this?'"
At the same time, people emerged from the smoke, ran through the rows of corn, and gathered on a rise in the land where scrub trees grew. Two FAA radio technicians on the field speculated that those people might have come from the nearby Interstate highway to climb the fence and gape at the wreck. But they gradually came to understand that some of the passengers had actually survived. In fact, out of 296 people on board, 184 survived, many without a scratch.
Laurence Gonzales is at work on the true story of what those people went through and what their lives have been like for the last quarter century. Flight 232 is the story not just of the passengers but also of those on the ground who saw them through the ordeal and its aftermath: the air traffic controllers, fire fighters, doctors, nurses, and investigators whose lives were all changed forever by the crash of United Flight 232. Flight 232 will be published in 2014 by W.W. Norton in time for the 25th anniversary of the crash.